aggregating accurate estimations forecasting precise predictions computing contingent forecasts modeling accurate understanding delivering definitive understanding mapping the future forecasting predictive understanding predicting accurate estimations formulating definitive insights computing accurate futures exploring predictive understanding mapping intelligent estimations forecasting intelligent forecasts mapping precise futures


Metaculus Help: Spread the word

If you like Metaculus, tell your friends! Share this question via Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit.

Ragnarök Question Series: If a global catastrophe occurs, will it be due to nanotechnology failure-mode?

In 1959, Richard Feynman pointed out that nanometre‐scale machines could be built and operated, and that the precision inherent in molecular construction would make it easy to build multiple identical copies. This raised the possibility of manufacturing at ever increasing speeds, in which production systems could rapidly and cheaply increase their productive capacity. This in turn suggested the possibility of destructive runaway self‐replication.

As Eric Drexler, a nanotech pioneer, first warned in Engines of Creation in 1986 (pg. 146),

In a mature form, molecular nanotechnology would enable the construction of bacterium-scale self-replicating mechanical robots that can feed on dirt or other organic matter. Such replicators could eat up the biosphere or destroy it by other means such as by poisoning it, burning it, or blocking out sunlight.

Plants with ‘leaves’ no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out‐compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous “bacteria” could out‐compete real bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. A person of malicious intent in possession of this technology might cause a catastrophe on Earth by releasing such nanobots into the environment.

Such self-replicating systems, if not countered, could make the earth largely uninhabitable. Other potential risks include ecological and health disasters resulting from nano-pollutants, the use of misuse of nanotechnology weaponry, and, given the general-purpose character of nanotech, possibly much more.

Moreover, the technology to produce a destructive nanobot seems considerably easier to develop than the technology to create an effective defense against such an attack (a global nanotech immune system, an “active shield”). Regulation might also be hard. Nanotech doesn’t require rare radioactive isotopes or large, easily identifiable manufacturing plants, as does production of nuclear weapons.

Although only small portion of scientists might currently be working to develop self-replicating nanotech, a recent study done for NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts by General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems suggests that a useful self-replicating machine could be less complex than a Pentium 4 chip, and uncovered no road blocks to extending macroscale systems to microscale and then to nanoscale self-replicating systems. Drexler points out that much of recent surprising progress comes from disparate fields, and isn't labelled generally "nanotechnology".

In the headline question to this series, we defined a global catastrophe as a 10% decrease in the world population in any period of 5 years.

If a global catastrophe happens before 2100, will it be principally due to the deployment nanotechnology?

The question resolves positively if a global nanotechnology catastrophe occurs that claims at least 10% in any period of 5 years or less before 2100, and resolves as ambiguous if no global catastrophe occurs.

This question is part of the Ragnarök Question Series. Please have a look at the other questions and contribute your insights, analyses, and factorizations, especially on the questions on what might happen if a global catastrophe occurs (for which we are currently short on predictions):

  1. If a global biological catastrophe occurs, will it reduce the human population by 95% or more?

  2. If an artificial intelligence catastrophe occurs, will it reduce the human population by 95% or more?

  3. If a nuclear catastrophe occurs, will it reduce the human population by 95% or more?

  4. If a global climate disaster occurs by 2100, will the human population decline by 95% or more?

Also, please check out our questions on whether a global catastrophe will occur by 2100, and if so, which?:

  1. By 2100 will the human population decrease by at least 10% during any period of 5 years?

  2. Will such a catastrophe be due to either human-made climate change or geoengineering?

  3. Will such a catastrophe be due to a nanotechnology failure-mode?

  4. Will such a catastrophe be due to nuclear war?

  5. Will such a catastrophe be due to an artificial intelligence failure-mode?

  6. Will such a catastrophe be due to biotechnology or bioengineered organisms?

All results are analysed here, and will be updated periodically.


Metaculus help: Predicting

Predictions are the heart of Metaculus. Predicting is how you contribute to the wisdom of the crowd, and how you earn points and build up your personal Metaculus track record.

The basics of predicting are very simple: move the slider to best match the likelihood of the outcome, and click predict. You can predict as often as you want, and you're encouraged to change your mind when new information becomes available.

The displayed score is split into current points and total points. Current points show how much your prediction is worth now, whereas total points show the combined worth of all of your predictions over the lifetime of the question. The scoring details are available on the FAQ.

Note: this question resolved before its original close time. All of your predictions came after the resolution, so you did not gain (or lose) any points for it.

Note: this question resolved before its original close time. You earned points up until the question resolution, but not afterwards.

This question is not yet open for predictions.

Thanks for predicting!

Your prediction has been recorded anonymously.

Want to track your predictions, earn points, and hone your forecasting skills? Create an account today!

Track your predictions
Continue exploring the site

Community Stats

Metaculus help: Community Stats

Use the community stats to get a better sense of the community consensus (or lack thereof) for this question. Sometimes people have wildly different ideas about the likely outcomes, and sometimes people are in close agreement. There are even times when the community seems very certain of uncertainty, like when everyone agrees that event is only 50% likely to happen.

When you make a prediction, check the community stats to see where you land. If your prediction is an outlier, might there be something you're overlooking that others have seen? Or do you have special insight that others are lacking? Either way, it might be a good idea to join the discussion in the comments.